It was the Civil War's "Kitty Hawk moment," and it happened here when balloons manned by Confederate and Union aeronauts floated above a field of battle _ the first time warring armies sent their air ships aloft simultaneously over U.S. soil.
The historic encounter in the skies occurred on June 27, 1862, when two Union balloons _ the Intrepid and the Washington _ rose aloft only miles west of Richmond while their Southern counterpart, Gazelle, floated over the capital of the Confederacy. These balloons were the unarmed drones of war, collecting intelligence on rival troop movements from a vantage of 1,000 feet above the earth.
"You had the Confederate balloon up and the Union balloons up, all trying to exploit the advantages of being above and over the battlefield and providing tactical information to their respective generals," says Mike Boehme, director of the Virginia Aviation Museum. "This was the first time that opposing air forces were facing each other."
Today a multimillion-dollar preservation effort by the nonprofit group The Civil War Trust is seeking to save the ground where the Union launched its balloons here. Little of the original battlefield has been preserved. But the 285-acre slice of the Gaines' Mill battlefield includes a ravine that shielded the North's balloons from Confederate troops while they were launched.
Gaines' Mill was the stage for the one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Civil War and the battleground where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee recorded his first victory. The June 27, 1862, battle repulsed Union forces and their Peninsula Campaign, a disastrous attempt starting in March 1862 to occupy Richmond by way of the peninsula between the York and James rivers. The battle involved nearly 100,000 troops and left more than 15,000 dead or wounded.
The trust's Rob Shenk was attending a presentation on Civil War ballooning in June at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum when he made the aeronautic connection.
"I realized, God, that looks like one of the tracts we're about to save," said Shenk, the trust's director of Internet strategy and development. "How amazing it would be if we were saving a piece of battlefield land that had great aeronautical history."
Until the Civil War, balloons were fairgrounds attractions, taking the curious aloft for a few dollars.
A New Englander, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, changed all that. The father of military aerial reconnaissance, he had planned a trans-Atlantic balloon crossing until he was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as chief aeronaut of the Union's balloon corps. He dazzled the president by taking a balloon over the White House and telegraphing Lincoln a message in June 1861.That was the beginning of the Union's earliest "air force" and balloons would later be sent aloft on several occasions to spy on enemy lines _ but not at the same time by rival forces until Gaines' Mill.
Intrigued by the intersection of Civil War and aeronautic history, Boehme and two experts in aviation history trekked to Gaines' Mill one crisp fall day. They carried historic photos of ballooning from Gaines' Mill, comparing the present-day contours of the spare landscape with the aging images.
All agreed, this was the home of Civil War ballooning's heyday.
"Military ballooning spreads from here, really, to around the world," said Tom D. Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
"The high ground. It is the ultimate high ground," said James L. Green, chief of planetary science at NASA and one of the three who viewed the site of the Union balloon camp.
With Richmond about 6 miles due east and the faint sound of traffic on Interstate 295 in the distance, it now seems an unlikely setting for aeronautic history. A closer look, however, connects all the dots.
Today the Union balloon camp is found beyond a field of grazing beef cattle and in a ravine studded with decaying logs and a thicket of boot-snagging grasses. In this trough, Union aeronauts hauled in wagons to inflate the balloons.
The Gazelle, which was stitched together using silk common to dressmaking, was launched from a rail track close to Richmond.
While Confederate forces had balloons, the North had the technological and financial edge to assemble a balloon corps. Still, even the Union's use of balloons was limited to a couple of years. Military leaders weren't quite sure how to effectively deploy this novelty.
The balloons were tethered as aeronauts relayed observations by telegraph, the communication wire dangling to the ground. Residents in Richmond could see the Union inflatables. It was probably a terrifying sight.
"If I was in Richmond and I saw the balloons, which they did quite frequently, I would be scared that the Union army is just over the hill," Green said.
The Union balloons were made of thick silk with a coat of varnish enveloped by a netting of Italian flax thread. The basket was made of willow and cane and had an armored floor.
The three modern-day pilgrims stood near the banks of a small, clear brook, talking excitedly about what occurred here 149 years ago and how balloons could be inflated in the ravine by Union forces without being detected by Confederate forces. The hydrogen was concocted in inflation wagons using dilute sulfuric acid and iron filings.
"This spot is incredibly historic for people who really enjoy aeronautics and the birth of flight," Boehme said. "For me, personally, this is like going down to Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers."
The Civil War wasn't the first time balloons were used in a wartime environment. More than a half century before the start of the Civil War, France created the Corp d'Aerostiers in 1794. They too were used for military reconnaissance.
Lowe, whom Crouch described as a showman, designed balloons that were sturdier than the fairground versions, with some able to carry five people aloft. One of the largest, the Intrepid, had a portrait on the balloon depicting Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who led the Union's Peninsula campaign. The portrait was suspended from an eagle's beak.
The Union's balloon corps, which included seven inflatables, were sent aloft during the Peninsula campaign at Yorktown and at the Union-held Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Va. There was even an early forerunner of an aircraft carrier: two balloons and their gas generators were loaded onto a converted coal barge for observations over water. expanded
Despite the Union's dominance of the skies, Lee's troops had a rare edge in numbers at Gaines' Mill and the Southern forces were able to drive back the Army of the Potomac and save the Confederate capital.
The Civil War Trust is using state and federal funds to preserve the 285 acres of the battlefield, but a capital campaign is needed to raise an additional $1.2 million to close the deal. The land ultimately could be transferred to the National Park Service.
At the 150th anniversary of the Gaines' Mill battle next June, Shenk is hopeful a replica of the Intrepid can be launched from the same site.
"The fact that we could fly and see what's going on over the hill has absolutely shaped the course of world history," Crouch said. "And all of it starts here."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
The Civil War Trust: http://www.civilwar.org/
Virginia Aviation Museum: http://www.vam.smv.org/